Grill-Art Cafe has light fare with flair

A dolled-up space with creative dishes makes a good start for Hampden bistro

Sunday Gourmet

October 12, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If you want to eat in Hampden -- unless it's at the Royal Farm Store -- you've got to expect things to be a little funky. Despite its high-style looks, the new Grill-Art Cafe on the Avenue, otherwise known as 36th Street, is no exception.

The Grill-Art is the creation of Milton Lentz and Rick Roberts, previously at Roland Park's Stone Mill Bakery. They've taken the space where a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant named the Pinebrook was located and transformed it into a sleek little bistro.

What they've done with the drab storefront space is impressive. The colors are mod, from the lemon sherbet of one wall to the fuzzy purple of the chrome counter stools in front, with red and black checkerboard flooring. High-concept lighting and little votive candles add to its charm. The dining room is long and narrow, and the walls down the sides are exposed brick, a backdrop for paintings by local artists. That's where the art part of the name comes from.

The grill part is that many of the dishes involve grilled shrimp, chicken, fish, sliced tenderloin or portobello mushrooms. It's not, in other words, a hamburger kind of grill.

The menu consists of moderately expensive salads ($4.50 for a simple salad) and moderately inexpensive entrees ($14.95 for grouper with pesto sauce). Light fare is the order of the day, with gourmet sandwiches and several small plates like the eggplant flan. This is a dish that makes diners sit up and take notice. It has a smooth texture and subtle flavor, and strips of grilled portobello mushroom form an ingratiating counterpoint. Not everything is this unusual. There are also offerings with a Hon sort of feeling, like the iceberg lettuce wedge with blue cheese dressing and roasted red peppers on the side.

Grill-Art features a seasonal vegetable plate, with red peppers, root vegetables and so on, this time of year. They're roasted and served with crisp grilled toasts made from an excellent baguette. In fact, the artisanal bread is a highlight here, with choices like rustic white, sunflower and jalapeno cheddar, all from Atwater's Bakery. One of the owners brings it around in a basket and parcels out slices with tongs. It deserves that kind of respect.

Even though the bread is wonderful, the baguette could use a little help when it comes to the grilled tuna with avocado sandwich. It needed mayonnaise or the equivalent to make it a little less dry. The fresh-fruit salsa salad with chicken kabobs also puzzled us. The chicken was carefully grilled and the salsa added a sweet, fresh note. But the greens had not a bit of dressing on them.

One of the most popular items on the menu, according to one of the staff, is something called an "inauthentic enchilada." The description is exactly right. If you can forget about the Southwestern specialty and think of this as a dish in its own right, the soft tortilla filled with chicken, grilled and surrounded by Southwestern accompaniments in a divided dish will please you.

Shrimp with feta holds its own against a bracing sauce of Metaxa brandy, ouzo and tomatoes. Served over fettuccine, it's a more intriguing dish than the grilled tenderloin. I loved the smoky flavor of the beef, which comes in rosy slices, but the great mound of vegetable-infused couscous that sat on the plate did nothing for it, and the rounds of zucchini seemed a bit skimpy. Slices of duck breast are often a special, with the same sorts of accompaniments. When I tried them, they were overcooked but had a fine, fruity sauce.

The service at Grill-Art is very strange. On the one hand, you have the two owners, who are friendly and seem to be keeping an eye on things while doing some of the work in the kitchen. But everyone else -- well, it's amateur night. With all the good will in the world, they don't seem to understand the fundamentals of waiting tables, like removing dirty dishes before putting down new ones. On one visit, I was pretty much ignored until an owner noticed me. On another, the waitress stopped by to take our order every minute until we had to tell her to go away and we would signal her when we were ready. (We did it politely.) After that, she ignored us.

We asked her what there was for dessert, and she said a homemade cheesecake with a chocolate glaze. After persistent questioning, we got her to admit there was also rice pudding and a creme brulee, both of which turned out to be quite good (as was the cheesecake). But when we left, we noticed a fine-looking fig tart that we hadn't heard about sitting next to the cheesecake on the counter. Is it too much to expect for the staff to know what food is available on any given night?

Grill-Art Cafe

Food: ** 1/2

Service: * 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1011 W. 36th St., Hampden

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, brunch on Saturday and Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $4.50-$7.95; main courses, $8.99-$17.99

Call: 410-366-2005

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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